Sometimes in rugby the tide of a match quickly and dramatically turns. Victory curdles into defeat, or defeat unexpectedly blooms into victory. Last Saturday at Ellis Park Ireland and the Springboks tasted different sides of that vagarious dish as South Africa rallied to score three tries in 17 minutes to win.
It’s hard sometimes to look back at games like this and pinpoint exactly what brought about the change. In this case it’s fair to say that the Irish are at the end of a long season, that their players ran out of puff as altitude came into play, and that the Springboks’ well-timed injection of verve from the bench helped deliver the killer blow.
But while this is all true, and while we shouldn’t underestimate just how off-their-feet the Irish were at the end, there’s more to it than that.
Much has been made of the fact the Springboks started to attack space better in the second half – coaches like to say this is running into “spaces, not faces”. But what does it mean when we say a player ran at space? Can a player necessarily always choose to run at space? Do other factors, like the shape and linespeed of the defence, the speed of the attack’s ruck ball, the alignment and decisions of team mates, and the player’s own alignment and positioning with regards to the defence also not come into play?
Even the game’s most devastating runners cannot necessarily choose to “get into space” whenever they want to. Being able to take advantage of pure space and opportunity depends on a multitude of factors. And logically, players do run into space when it’s in front of them, right?
So what are we actually talking about?
It’s important to distinguish between two ideas that we’re going to dub “Space In Play” and “Space In Contact”.
Space in play refers to the way a team decides to play (or not play) in space – the width of their plays, the direction their phases go, etc. It’s a collective, tactical approach to where they choose to attack.
Space in contact refers to the running line an individual ball carrier takes as he approaches a defender. Does he gun straight for the tackler? Does he take a line at the space next to the defender, and if so, which line?
A quick aside because it’s worth talking about – none of these things is necessarily more or less desirable than the others, it all depends on the situation. A team might decide to play tighter, seek contact and suck in defenders to create opportunities out wide, or they might decide to play looser and try to wheedle out gaps earlier.
In the same breath a carrier might decide he wants to run straight at a defender to bump him off, or attract another tackler, whatever. Or he might decide to attack the space next to the defender to see if he can get around him, or as an alternate way of maximising his gain in the tackle, etc.
There isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong. The important thing is that there is a balance and that the right situational decisions are taken both tactically and individually. As a coach once wryly remarked, “You can’t run into spaces if you haven’t got into some faces.”
So if we’re saying the Boks started to play more to space in the second half, what do we mean?
In terms of Space In Play the Boks did start to play with more width. What was also notable was that they started to get quicker ruck ball, that they stressed the Irish defence with more “same-side” phase plays, and that their running lines and realignment improved.
But what we’re interested in looking at today is the Springboks’ use of Space In Contact. Was there a change in the way individual Bok carriers approached contact in the second half? While watching the game we felt that the Boks did start to make better decisions pre-tackle, and that it contributed to the quicker tempo that ultimately took the Irish off their feet.
On closer inspection this is what we found.
SPACE IN CONTACT
As a carrier there are, broadly speaking, four ways you can go when choosing a running line.
- You run into Space if it presents itself. I.e. you’re Cheslin Kolbe and you can run past a prop. Or you are put into space by another player.
- You run at the Inside Soft Shoulder of the defender. The defender tracks you, staying on your inside, then you cut in and attack his weaker inside shoulder just before contact occurs. A quick move back in against the grain and the defender has to defend in the opposite direction to his own momentum. This is the defender’s weak shoulder, though it necessitates a sudden change of direction on your part.
- You T-Bone the defender by running straight at him. You fix the defender in your sights and commit to direct contact. Your goal could be purely to dominate the collision to set up quick ball, or to force the opposition to commit reinforcements as Eben Etzebeth does below. There are many good reasons to take contact.
- You run at the defender’s Lateral (Outside) Strong Shoulder. This is the defender’s dominant shoulder because he is already moving in the right direction to tackle you. You’re both moving laterally, he just needs to accelerate into contact to take you down. Unless you have real pace this can be the least desirable option as it generally yields mediocre results in terms of getting past your man, dominating contact or getting across the gain line.
So having described these decisions a player can make when he considers the space around a defender, Rugby Analytics has logged what running lines Springbok players took into contact on Saturday, and when.
This first graph reflects the total spread of decisions made by South African players as they approached contact. As we can see, 45% of the time the Boks went straight at their man, and only 25% of the time did they choose the often more desirable route of trying to run at the defender’s weaker inside shoulder. Pure, clean space doesn’t happen often in a test so it’s no surprise that the Boks only had these opportunities 5% of the time.
But what we really want to know is, did the Bok carriers start to play more to space as the game progressed? Did they look for less faces? Rugby Analytics’ Player Running Lines breakdown by quarter has the answer.
It’s pretty clear. As the game progressed, the number of T-Bone lines (red) decreased and the number of Inside Soft Shoulder lines (green) increased. There was a clear shift in how the Boks approached contact. They started to attack the spaces around the defenders more, and as such the tempo of the game lifted. We’ve represented this again in a bubble graph that reads left to right marking players’ decisions during stretches of possession as the game played out.
Again, it confirms that the Boks became less direct (less T-Bones) as the game went on. But before we go further it’s important to add context. Firstly this could be seen as a natural progression; sometimes you try and soften up the opposition first before you open the taps. Secondly, the tiring Irish defenders would have presented more appealing weak shoulders as the game wore on. Still, it is a notable shift, and it does seem to coincide with the arrival of the Lions players on the pitch.
To get further insight, Rugby Analytics looked at individual player decisions when approaching contact. It makes for interesting reading.
The most striking thing is what we see in the Inside Soft Shoulder column (the good column), where the top 3 players are Pieter-Steph du Toit, Warren Whitely and Ruan Combrinck. It’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily a stick to beat people with – players are not always used in a way that allows them to attack an inside shoulder, or they are less capable (props), or they may have a good reason to not attack the weak shoulder.
But the table does tell us that two of the top three “space hounds” in contact were substitutes who came on later in the game, and that they were Lions’ players. It probably confirms the theory that the Boks improved when they looked for more space out wide and when they started to attack the space around defenders. It also gives us another gem of a stat on the excellent Pieter-Steph du Toit who clearly has not forgotten his days as a rampaging flanker. He may yet prove to be an ace-in-the-hole for the Boks on the blindside of the scrum.
To bring the conversation full circle, it’s worth looking at why the Lions players could make this kind of difference. We started out by saying that there are a lot of factors that determine how you can approach looming contact. Simply put, in the Lions’ case they realign well, they realign quickly, they run from depth and take the ball at pace, and they tend to be more direct and straight. These things all combine to allow them to dictate terms before contact, as Warren Whitely does below.
The dramatic way the Irish fell off towards the end of the match granted the Springboks opportunities they might not have had otherwise, but the Lions players, crucially, were exactly the right men to exploit that. It’s naive to say that the Springboks would have had their way against a full-strength Irish team firing on all cylinders, or that the Boks will find the same easy joy against the All Blacks or England’s frightening defensive machine. It’s important to look at those last 20 minutes in a sober way.
But still, what we saw on Saturday was the first inkling of a “trickle up” effect as Lions rugby started to seep into the Springbok D.N.A. While some proven combatants like Duane Vermeulen might need a few games to get onto the rhythm of Allister Coetzee’s more expansive and fast-paced dispensation, new faces have arrived in the Bok camp primed and ready to make it happen. And through all the turmoil of the last two weeks it’s important to credit the coach for opening that door.